Report points to inadequacy of school water-quality testing

According to a recent AP study, many of the country’s schools are serving up drinking water contaminated with bacteria, lead, pesticides and other toxins. But the study was as interesting for what it couldn’t report as for what it did report: Only districts that have their own water supplies are required to test their water, noted the AP–so many schools don’t even know if their water contains contaminants.

Scientist pointed out that the ominous mix of children (who are more susceptible to toxins than adults) and aging school pipes makes a strong argument for overhauling the regulatory system.

In schools with lead-soldered pipes, the metal sometimes flakes off into drinking water. Lead levels can also build up as water sits stagnant over weekends and holidays.

Schools that get water from local utilities are not required to test for toxins because the EPA already regulates water providers. That means there is no way to ensure detection of contaminants caused by schools’ own plumbing.

But voluntary tests in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle and Los Angeles have found dangerous levels of lead in recent years. And experts warn the real risk to schoolchildren is going unreported.

“I really suspect the level of exposure to lead and other metals at schools is underestimated,” said Michael Schock, a corrosion expert with the EPA in Cincinnati. “You just don’t know what is going on in the places you don’t sample.”

Colorado schools with their own water supplies—the only schools required to test their water—have registered 16 water quality violations in the last 10 years, according to EPA data published by the AP. That’s far less than California, which had the most violations of any state:  612.

Several of the Colorado violations occurred repeatedly at the same schools or districts, according to the EPA data. The Lowell Whiteman School, a boarding and day school in Steamboat Springs, for example, shows eight violations of the surface water treatment rule in the last 10 years. The surface water treatment rule requires disinfection and filtration for drinking water that comes from surface water sources such as rives and lakes.

Reached by phone, Heidi Nunnikhoven, the school’s business and building manager explained that the school’s filtration system has been overhauled since its seven violations in 2000-2001. She attributed the school’s one violation in 2008 to lack of chlorine. Nunnikhoven explained that a leak in the system can let more water in, throwing off the water-chlorine balance. The school now tests its spring-fed water system four times a day.

“I do think we have the best water that any school has,” she said.

Other Colorado school violations, according to EPA data published by the AP, were at the Edison School District in Golden, the Mountain Phoenix Community School in Golden, the Waldorf School in Carbondale, the Briggsdale School in Briggsdale, and the Cardinal Community Academy in Keenesburg. More information about these violations can be found here.

The AP report follows a blockbuster series in the New York Times earlier this month about failures in enforcement of the Clean Water Act that have resulted in contaminated community water supplies.

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Katie Redding

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